Bears seek right combinations at safety

Craig Steltz's steadiness is one of the qualities that make him a safe pick for the Bears. Rob Grabowski/US Presswire

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Recent injuries to Chris Conte and Brandon Hardin will give the Bears a chance to shuffle the deck at safety and try out some new combinations in advance of the regular season opener on September 9. This a path the Bears have been down before after they trotted out eight different safety pairings last year, six of those in the first seven weeks of the season.

"It makes it a little more challenging," Bears secondary coach Jon Hoke said on Wednesday. "I don't know if it's tough, but it is challenging. It gives you an opportunity to look at other guys and it gives guys opportunities. That's kind of the way they have to look at it. You never how these injury things are going to shake out. It's another opportunity to look at these guys, evaluate and see where we are at."

Veteran Craig Steltz is expected to step in and start in place of Conte when the Bears face the New York Giants on Friday night, although the team could opt to move Major Wright to free safety and plug Steltz in at strong. That was how the two lined up when they were paired together in the final two games of the 2011 regular season. Wright spent the offseason and the first few weeks of training camp at strong safety and Conte at free, however, the Bears always maintain the safety positions are interchangeable.

"(Wright has) asserted himself more," Hoke said. "He's more confident in the way he interacts with players, the way he communicates with players. He's become more vocal from that standpoint and that's a good thing.

"‘Craig is steady. You know what you are going to get. He's instinctive, he's smart and he's going to be in the right position. He makes plays for us. He's had a very good training camp."

Hardin was not in a position to challenge for a starting job at the time of his neck injury, but his absence does give second-year safety Anthony Walters a legitimate shot to make the team. Walters will be watched closely on both defense and special teams in New York as the club wants to see how the young player handles a step up in competition.

"Anthony has had a good preseason and you can tell he's been here all year," Hoke said. "He's learned, he's matured, all those types of things. I'm excited for him to go and play with a better group of players and against a better group of players. That's going to be exciting to see from him."

Hoke also wants to see improved play from undrafted rookies Jeremy Jones and Trevor Coston if/when they get on the field versus the Giants, two players who the coach says are "still trying to figure it out." Second-year safety Mark LeGree rounds out the position on the Bears' depth chart.